The Task of the Interpreter and Walter Benjamin


I have always had a nagging feeling that interpreting is one of the most important human activities. Interpreting is valuable not only for the participants immediately involved, but its also a fascinating demonstration of the human capacity to do things with language.

Language is interesting because virtually no part of our human existence can be fully understood or thoroughly appreciated without language. Indeed, over the past 100 years philosophers as different (and in some ways as similar) as Bertrand Russell and Martin Heidegger have spent the better part of their professional lives trying to explain just how language structures the experience of being human. Central to these thinkers – and the many who followed them – was the notion that humans have a unique and extremely flexible capacity to assign meaning to the objects and experiences we encounter in the world. Our individual and collective role in assigning, negotiating, and contesting meaning in the world can be summed up in one word: interpretation.

Loosening the Boundaries of History

Therefore it is likely no accident that interpreting – and sign language interpreting in particular – became a profession in the 20th Century. We tend to focus on the historical events that define our profession (the Ball State meeting in 1964, let’s say) or the individuals who invested their labor into moving us forward (Lou Fant comes to mind). It’s clear why. Their stories are our stories handed down through mentorship or gleaned from the pages of textbooks or from the VHS cassettes we used in my interpreting program.

However, I’d would like to make a very simple suggestion: that we zoom out from our individual profession – if just briefly – to put ourselves and our collective history into a larger context. My is strategic. I am suggesting that we widen the scope of our own history, and in so doing recognize (and advocate for) the larger significance of interpreting in society. My imperfect example is to take a look at an essay written in 1923 by Walter Benjamin.

Walter Benjamin was a German literary critic, philosopher, and translator whose life of influence and tragedy is too dense to tell here. What is important for us is that in 1923, Benjamin wrote an introduction to his translation of a collection of works by the French poet, Charles Baudelaire. The introductory essay was called The Task of the Translator, and in it Benjamin lays out his approach to the nature of translation and some of its main challenges. One caveat: it’s true that the pragmatic considerations of translators appear very different from what we think of as interpreters. But a closer look at Benjamin’s text reveals language issues that transcend practical differences.

Walter Benjamin’s The Task of the Translator

I would like to focus on two main examples that I find especially relevant in Benjamin’s essay.

On the Limits of Fidelity

“…no translation would be possible if in its ultimate essence it strove for likeness to the original.” – Benjamin

The fundamental principle of translation and interpretation is the notion of fidelity. But Benjamin suggests – and working interpreters know – that strict formal fidelity is part of the problem, not part of the solution. We’ve all seen this, haven’t we? Those moments when we interpret something with undue literalness. We say things like, “that was too English” or “you’re talking in ASL” to indicate this simple concept. Awkward literalness isn’t a result of simply choosing the wrong variable in an otherwise balanced equation, like systematically replacing the red blocks in a Lego house with otherwise identical green blocks. There is something about interpreting which escapes formal calculation. And yet when we see amazing interpreters at work, we feel that “click” that something has come together in an entirely original yet accurate way. We recognize that provisionally – in the moment, in the set of circumstances at the time – a great interpretation performs the function it was intended to have. What Benjamin argues clearly (and more elaborately in his essay) is that fidelity, strictly speaking, is not always the best way to evaluate the success of a translation or an interpretation. This may seem obvious to us now. But remember: he was writing over 40 years before RID was came into existence, and still long before any systematic work had been done in interpreting theory.

On the Impossibility of a Final Interpretation

“…all translation is only a somewhat provisional way of coming to terms with the foreignness of languages.” – Benjamin

Even the best interpretations are always partial. In the everyday life of interpreters, there is a common (but under-analyzed) practice of commenting on the ways that we would have interpreted something that another interpreter signed or voiced. Yet have we fully appreciated the fact that this common practice is only possible because interpretations are indeed always partial, always “provisional”? Indeed, we always could have signed or voiced something different, and yet there is no need to imply that the first interpretation was inadequate. There are always openings for other interpretations which add something unique or relevant. This is not simply the result of peer violence, where interpreters belittle one another’s work (although it is sad when it stoops to that level). Instead, this is an indication that interpreting is our slippery attempt to make sense of the linguistic and social situations that we find ourselves in. A word of caution: this does not mean that all interpretations are equally valid. Benjamin is very clear that “bad translations” (his words) exist and perhaps dominate the world of translations. But it does suggest that even our best work will need to be refined over time, and that no interpretation can claim a superior finality.

Relevance Today

The conclusion I draw from this difficult essay is rather simple. Benjamin remains a significant literary and theoretical figure today – probably more so than when he was alive. There is great value for us in realizing the affinities between our work as interpreters and aspects of Benjamin’s work 100 years ago. Not only do we open up new opportunities for us to think about our own work, we can also open up dialogue with other fields of study. I recognize that this may not be attractive to all interpreters, nor does it make us better skilled or better paid interpreters overnight. But for some of us who are trying to meet new educational requirements for certification or trying to expand our professional knowledge base, this might provide new and useful opportunities.

I believe Benjamin’s essay is relevant today because it shows that the history of our profession is not simply our history. Rather, we exist today in part because of a number of social, political, and – yes – philosophical conditions the 20th century. What is at stake in interpreting is not only the important role of language mediation between the often-marginalized sign language community and the non-signing majority. Interpreting is intimately connected to the most profound and fundamental shifts in economic organization and philosophical thought in the past 100 years. With this recognition in mind, we may be able to argue forcefully that while our numbers may be small, we are nonetheless significant and deserve more than passing attention. It is to the benefit of society at large – not only to working interpreters – to recognize our important place in history.

*This is an incomplete short piece I started writing over a year ago and never quite finished. I present it here so I can just move on.



5 thoughts on “The Task of the Interpreter and Walter Benjamin”

  1. The unfinished nature of translation reminds me of Bloch’s notion of the ‘unfinished’ story of humanity. Human activity, he said, is implicitly utopian… building is a utopian act… we strive forwards towards the unfinished, accepting that it is unfinished. And that’s as it should be.

    1. Yes, I think this is what is interesting to me, Mike. The relationship between life and language, the distinction between human and animal on the basis of language, the role of language in Christian metaphysics — it’s just language all the way through and through. This means that interpreting has a very peculiar history, I think.

      1. I find it fascinating too – I’d love to do a project that looks at the history of interpreting, comparing interpreting and translation for hearing and Deaf… and look at the different discursive strands that each side has mobilised. I’m convinced that the history of the two, being so different, is one of the reasons that Deaf people struggle to shrug off their ‘othering’… they are siloed by the hidden history of those who provide their interface with the hearing world.

  2. Thank you for your writing. There was much debate on his approach on the theoretical side, but, in the practice of translation, how did Benjamin influence translation strategies?

    1. Yes, great question. I’m not sure of the right answer. I don’t think he created a completely new paradigm of translation or anything. But he continues to inspire philosophical research on translation and language. If you find an answer let me know.

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